It was a confrontation destined from the start.
When police moved in this week to begin clearing a homeless encampment in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside that had grown several blocks long, a clash seemed inevitable. Deadlines to leave on their own accord had come and gone with little action by the occupants.
The fire department had been warning for weeks that the encampment posed a major hazard. There have been dozens of small fires in the encampment district that could have led to something much worse.
The tents, tarps, propane heaters along with all of the detritus that had piled up over months had to go. And so the police moved in and chaos ensued. Tensions have since eased and the dismantling of the camp continues under the supervision of police and city workers.
The homelessness situation in Vancouver – as it is in most major cities in North America – has become an intractable problem. The homeless in Vancouver have, in recent years, moved from site to site, pushed along by public pressure and city ordinances.
Most have nowhere to move to. Many wouldn’t know what to do if they were provided with a permanent place to live. Many wouldn’t have the first clue about how to find a job or how to get off of the drugs they are addicted to.
It’s a monumental societal problem.
Recently, the head of BC Housing, Shayne Ramsay announced he was resigning after 22 years. Few saw it coming. But Mr. Ramsay didn’t leave without making clear why: He’d had enough.
Recently, he’d been pushing a social housing project proposed for the tony west side of Vancouver.
At a public meeting at city hall to deal with the proposed 13-storey tower, things got heated. Mr. Ramsay spoke passionately for the project. When he left, he was swarmed and verbally abused by residents opposed to the project. It shook him.
In his resignation letter, the respected CEO said he’d been devastated by recent incidents involving the homeless. One woman was doused with a substance and lit on fire. Another man was stabbed to death. There are regular assaults. He found getting social housing projects built was an ever-increasing grind.
“I no longer have confidence I can solve the complex problems facing us at BC Housing,” Mr. Ramsay said of the $2-billion-a-year operation which funds and oversees tens of thousands of social housing units across the province.
This is a resignation that should not only sound alarms in B.C. but across the country. Homelessness is not a West Coast issue alone. The treatment these poor souls are regularly subjected to is not a West Coast issue alone. The resistance to building homes for them is not a West Coast issue alone.
This is a Canadian problem. One that is getting worse. The Toronto Star reported this week that the average number of people turned away from the city’s homeless shelters was about 10 times higher in June as it was a year earlier. The city was unable to find a bed for about 100 people per day.
This is not to say that this situation has anything resembling a quick fix. It does not. The NIMBYism that has tried to block the social housing project in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood exists everywhere. Everyone loves the idea of spreading out social housing so it isn’t ghettoized until a project is proposed for your neighbourhood. Then there are a million reasons why it isn’t a good idea.
And so here we are.
The problems in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside have existed for decades, but they may never have been as bad as they are now. You have a homelessness problem exacerbated by a drug crisis that is killing thousands of people in the province – and across the country – every year. And there is simply not enough housing to begin accommodating everyone in need of a roof over their head.
Most of those losing their “homes” this week in Vancouver do not know where they are going next. They are young men and women, many Indigenous. Many were in tears as they packed up their belongings, lost and exhausted. Some said they’d likely later return to the very spot they were being cleared from.
Meantime, our political leaders wring their hands about a problem that isn’t going away and is only getting worse.
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